Skip to Main Content

Music, Theater, Dance: An Illustrated Guide

The Theater

The information in this guide is based on a 1993 publication and has not been updated.

A primary hallmark of the world of the theater is its astonishing variety: it encompasses a vast array of performance genres and production circumstances. Virtually all of these are reflected, often in considerable abundance, in the theater collections of the Library of Congress. Various elements of these collections will be found in several of the reading rooms of the Library, their location generally determined by the kind or type of material in question. In these reading rooms, scholars and artists have worked long hours pursuing projects directed toward reconstruction of various noteworthy performance events from the nation's theatrical past, perhaps for scholarly, or perhaps for actual new production purposes. Because of the enormity of the Library's theater collections, the staff has grown accustomed to hearing that someone has "discovered," in a Library collection, a stage script, for example, previously thought lost.

In the Valley. 193-. Federal Theatre Project Collection. Library of Congress Music Division.

The scope of these collections includes books, periodicals, playbills, manuscripts, letters, promptbooks, production photographs, and scenic design. The sheer magnitude of elements in the collections endow the Library with certain special strengths without parallel in other libraries. Its published and unpublished stage scripts, for example, give the Library the largest collection of American drama in the world.

One of the nation's major theater resources is the Library's collection of unpublished dramas deposited for copyright since 1870--in itself a formidable basis for the study of American theatrical, social, cultural, and literary history. Here, a reader can find scripts from American musical comedy, burlesque, the legitimate stage, and vaudeville, much of which would have been lost had it not been for copyright deposit. Thanks to a law protecting a writer's work from unauthorized use, the public can inquire into aspects of our nation's fabulous stage history to an extent not possible anywhere else.

The Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division holds a number of notable collections of published drama. The Raymond Toinet Collection of French literature contains a significant number of editions of plays, primarily of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Francis Longe Collection of theater works published in English between 1607 and 1812 includes original plays, theatrical adaptations, and translations credited to over six hundred playwrights, and is particularly rich in the works of lesser-known seventeenth-century figures. Particularly prized in the Division are copies of the 1599 Quarto edition of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the First Folio edition (1623), the Quarto edition (1619) of Midsummer Night's Dream, and copies of the 1632, 1664, and 1685 folios.

The Roman playwrights Terence and Plautus are represented in several incunabula. Among the editions of Terence are four copies of a Strasbourg incunabulum of 1496, particularly important for the history of theater production for woodcuts believed to be among the first representations of performance of Terence on the Renaissance stage. The Division also holds a copy of a German translation of 1486 of Terence's Eunuchus, four copies of the Aldine Aristophanes of 1498, and a Plautus manuscript of eighty-seven leaves dated 1487 containing eight of his plays.

The Library's coverage of both classic and contemporary Asian drama is remarkable. The Asian Division's collection of original Chinese-language plays is extensive, probably the largest outside China. Its collection of Japanese plays is likely the largest outside Japan, and it is comprehensive in the coverage of No, Kabuki, and Kyogen titles.

The Library's theatrical manuscript collections include papers of prominent persons from virtually all professions in theater: composers, actors, directors, producers, writers, and variety artists. The Library's Manuscript Division is particularly rich in papers of women prominent in the American theater, some of whom were also active abroad. Laura Keene and Charlotte Cushman were actress-managers whose papers offer invaluable insights into the business of the stage in the nineteenth century. Minnie Maddern Fiske possessed an extraordinary intellect with which she forged new levels of realism on the American stage. Margaret Webster directed highly acclaimed operatic and Shakespearean productions. Ruth Gordon's papers include her business correspondence, production material, programs, and general business papers from Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker and other plays.

Located primarily in the Music Division, the Library's lyric stage collections are another of its special strengths, affording the researcher perhaps the single most important and powerful resource to be found anywhere for the study of American musical theater. Many of these collections contain significant quantities of stage production and business material, in addition to a wealth of musical scores.

Oliver Smith, designer. Set design for My Fair Lady. Oliver Smith Collection. Library of Congress Music Division.

In the Irving Berlin Collection are scripts, posters and theater programs, song books, lyric sheets, sheet music, photographs, and considerable business material, including documentation on the Music Box Theater in New York City, a theater which Berlin owned originally with producer Sam Harris. The George and Ira Gershwin Collection is the largest public collection of original source materials for the study of the work and life of the Gershwins. It includes virtually all of the major Gershwin works in autograph manuscript, as well as autograph music sketches and scores, scrapbooks, financial records, contracts, correspondence, telegrams, and scripts for Gershwin stage and film productions. There is material on the Gershwins' relations with the Theatre Guild, the original producer of Porgy and Bess; with Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley, producers of many Gershwin musicals; with the Shubert organization; and with Florenz Ziegfeld for whom the Gershwins began work on the show, East Is West, which never finally materialized. There is correspondence from George White, producer of the Scandals revue series, to George Gershwin, and there are copies of contracts for such Ira Gershwin shows as Kurt Weill's Firebrand of Florence.

The Oscar Hammerstein II Collection covers his early musicals, for which he wrote both "book" and lyrics, as well as his later collaborations with Richard Rodgers. The collection contains scripts, notes, librettos, correspondence, printed music, pictorial materials, playbills from a variety of places, and awards. Oklahoma! and South Pacific are particularly well documented. The South Pacific folder includes material on lighting arrangements, tour scheduling, casting, contracts, program creation, and record album matters. The Pipe Dream folder includes illustrations for set designs by Jo Mielziner for the show. Scrapbooks include many production photographs of various shows with which Hammerstein was connected.

John Koenig, designer. Scenic rendering for This is the Army. 1944. Irving Berlin Collection. Library of Congress Music Division.

The David Merrick Collection covers the greatest part of the career of a man recognized as one of the most prominent producers of our day. It includes a large number of promptbooks containing script, lighting, and other stage cues, property lists, notes on costuming, and other production-related material. Productions covered include How Now, Dow Jones with score by Elmer Bernstein, 110 in the Shade of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, and Take Me Along and Carnival, with music and lyrics by Robert Merrill. Also in the collection are early drafts of Funny Girl, Child's Play, and The Rothschilds. Performance materials in the Merrick Collection which complement composers' holographs found elsewhere in the Music Division derive from Harold Rome's Fanny and I Can Get It for You Wholesale, and Breakfast at Tiffany's, with music and lyrics by Robert Merrill.

Of particular interest among the materials in the Moldenhauer Archives at the Library of Congress is the autograph copy of the celebrated prologue to Frank Wedekind's once highly controversial play, Erdgeist. It is written on the back of a copy of the poster used for a tour in 1898 through Germany and Austria-Hungary of the theater company Ibsen Theater, which was presenting Erdgeist in repertory. According to period documentation, when the company was about to present Erdgeist in Vienna, the company director, Carl Heine, told Wedekind that the Viennese public would not understand the play without an explanatory prologue, and in response Wedekind, then and there, wrote the requisite addition on the poster. The Prints and Photographs Division has custody of the vast majority of the Library's theater iconography. In its remarkable performing arts poster collection are 5,000 nineteenth-century lithographs, chromolithographs, and woodcuts pertaining to circus, rodeo, minstrelsy, specialty acts, burlesque, magic, vaudeville, opera, operetta, and theater. Ranging in size from small window cards to immense multiple-sheet posters, these works constitute a panorama of American theater during the later nineteeth century and include many brilliantly colored illustrations of spectacles, legitimate drama, and a large number of poster advertisements for the leading minstrel groups of the time. American theater in the earlier nineteenth century is well documented through prints from engravers and lithographers of the period, of whom Currier & Ives and Thomas & Wylie were the most prominent.

Minnie Maddern Fiske's photographic collection is the Library's largest photographic record of any single actor, with studio portraits of Mrs. Fiske, scenes from many of her plays and the plays of contemporaries such as George Arliss and Otis Skinner, and photographs used in designing stage sets.

The Division's theater photographs include original daguerreotypes from the middle of the nineteenth century of Jenny Lind and Junius Brutus Booth and original Mathew Brady glass plate negatives. There is an exceedingly large number of portraits of theater personalities by noted theatrical photographers such as Napoleon Sarony, Aimeé Dupont, Joseph Byron, Otto Sarony, B. J. Falk, and Arnold Genthe. Alfred Cheney Johnston's photographs of numerous Ziegfeld girls and prominent New York musical comedy personalities are an invaluable record of earlier twentieth-century American variety theater.

This brief space can afford only an overview of a theater collection that certainly can lay claim to being one of the finest of its kind, a collection in which the Library and the nation can take pride.